At this scary moment during which ultraconservative Americans in positions of power have our civil and constitutional rights in their crosshairs, it is vital that we remember the battles of the past as guideposts to help us secure our future. In To a More Perfect Union: U.S. v. Windsor, documentary producer and director Donna Vaccaro takes us back to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, paving the way for legal same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
For those too young to remember what life was like for the LGBT (the acronym used in the film) community, Vaccaro quickly covers the routine raids on gay bars in this country during the first half of the 20th century, when homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals were labeled communists and perverts by secular and religious authorities. She also provides a short synopsis of the Stonewall uprising that kicked off the gay liberation movement in earnest.
During this preamble, she introduces the heroine of the film and the gay rights movement, Edie Windsor, a refined young lesbian from Philadelphia who moved to New York City to find something “different” from the conventional marriage she left after a single year. There, Windsor found the lesbian bars and Thea Spyer, the woman with whom she would spend the next 46 years and whom she would go to Canada to marry a year before Spyer’s death from complications of multiple sclerosis. Because New York State did not recognize the legality of that marriage, Windsor was hit with more than half-a-million dollars in taxes on the estate Spyer left her.
At this point, the legal fight that forms the core of the documentary kicks in. Windsor meets attorney Roberta Kaplan, a lesbian at a white shoe law firm who agrees to represent her pro bono in her lawsuits against the State of New York and the United States to have her marriage recognized. Kaplan, clearly a smart and savvy lawyer, walks Windsor through all of the steps needed to reach the ultimate court in the land.
On the day of oral arguments, Kaplan says she felt completely prepared and anxious to get on with it. In simple terms, she shows that the U.S. Congress’ motivation in passing DOMA was to impose a moral requirement on the legal institution of marriage by defining it as involving one man and one woman only, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s due process provision and a deprivation of personal liberty.
To say that the LGBT community was ecstatic with the result is an understatement. Among those who benefited from the ruling was Kaplan herself, who considered Windsor family and a de facto grandmother to the son she and her wife were raising.
Edie Windsor died in 2017 at the age of 88. We can only hope that the legacy she left behind will remain the law of our land for as long as our country survives.
To a More Perfect Union: U.S. v. Windsor is streaming on OVID.tv as part of the streaming service’s August 2022 documentary programming focused on women’s issues.